(Movie Review by Christiaan Harden) When Debbie Melnyk and Nick Caine, two self-proclaimed progressive liberal filmmakers, set out to make a biography celebrating Michael Moore, they began as admirers and fans. After discovering a number of otherwise unknown facts about his documentaries, however, they ended up feeling, in their own words, ‘disappointed and disillusioned’. Provocative and thoughtful, their documentary “Manufacturing Dissent” provides a measured and welcomed alternative to the myriad of right-wing anti-Moore polemics widely available on the other side of the Atlantic. “Manufacturing Dissent” is an admirably honest and thoroughly rewarding piece of documentary filmmaking, and a must not only for fans of Moore, but for anybody interested in where the boundaries of documentary filmmaking ethics lie.
Despite attempts by the filmmakers to avoid a “Roger and Me”-style contributor chase, “Manufacturing Dissent” bares more than a passing resemblance to Moore’s breakthrough 1989 documentary. Repeated attempts are made by Melnyk and Caine, who are also husband and wife, to secure a sit-down interview with the controversial filmmaker. However, for a man who has made a career out of making people look foolish on camera, Moore clearly doesn’t want to run the risk of having a camera that he’s not in control of turned on him. Moore, who is currently finishing his latest film “Sicko”, an indictment of the American health care system, failed to respond to voice-mails, e-mails and third-party requests for an interview, despite suggesting at an early meeting in Cannes that he would be happy to sit for one.
Undeterred, the directors follow Moore around the U.S. on his Slacker Uprising Tour in 2004 to promote “Fahrenheit 9/11”, but it becomes increasingly difficult to get close to the filmmaker as the smokescreen surrounding him becomes increasingly murky. Melnyk and Caine were prevented from plugging in to the soundboard at one event, kicked out of Moore’s film festival in Traverse City, Michigan, and things even turn a little ugly when the pair is forcibly ejected from a conference by Moore’s sister, who also knocks Caine’s camera to the ground. As the filmmakers chase Moore around the country, they begin to learn more about the filmmaker’s dubious methodology, his questionable approach to journalistic and documentary ethics, and a little, but perhaps not enough, about the man himself.
In “Manufacturing Dissent”, interviews are successfully secured with supporters and critics alike. Close personal friends, acquaintances, former colleagues and long-time observers of Moore peel back the layers on his holier-than-thou image. Ben Hamper and actress Janeane Garofalo act as flag-wavers, while others, including acclaimed documentarians Errol Morris and Albert Maysles, along with writer Christopher Hitchens, take Moore to task over the ethics, tactics and accuracy of his output. The vast majority of the charges and critiques levelled at Moore’s work, such as his wilful manipulation of chronology, his omission of highly pertinent facts, and his deliberately misleading edits, have dogged him for many years and are well documented elsewhere.
However, “Manufacturing Dissent” does contain a few genuine revelations. Moore’s secret meeting and undisclosed interview with Roger Smith, the head of GM Motors and the apparently unwilling subject of “Roger and Me”, is perhaps the biggest. According to Caine and Melnyk, Moore did indeed meet Smith, as evidenced by a leaked transcript and by testimony from a close friend who worked on the film, but the interview was conveniently left on the cutting room floor. Amazingly, Melnyk and Caine also reveals that Moore’s charitable foundation owns shares in industries that he has constantly railed against for their failure to put people before profits, including the filmmaker’s number one enemy, the U.S. energy giant Halliburton.
Despite discovering such damning revelations, “Manufacturing Dissent” refuses point-blank to sensationalise, and remains even-handed throughout, something very much to the filmmakers’ credit, and perhaps something that Mr. Moore could take on-board himself. Moore’s personal character, as well as his methodology, is called repeatedly into question. He is accused of being a sell-out and traitor for supporting John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, and for enjoying the luxury life-styles that he has made a career out of lampooning. His own bid for superstardom and celebrity status is charged with getting in the way of the causes he champions. A good friend even suggests that Moore only supported Nader in 2000 to ensure that Bush made it into the White House, because a Democratic Administration would leave his muckraking career in tatters. Although I suspect (and hope) that this was said with tongue firmly in cheek.
Moore’s enormous ego, his ‘schizophrenic’ nature and his ‘pathological need to be right’ are brought firmly to light, whilst we are also treated, if that’s the right expression, to a side of Moore almost unrecognisable from his on-screen persona. He is deliberately evasive, patronising, and in an interview for his only filmmaking flop “Canadian Bacon”, he is clearly put out when the interviewer dares to criticise his film. The filmmaker momentarily drops his guard to reveal a rather unpleasant side that most, including myself, were totally unfamiliar with.
Although Caine and Melnyk reveals a great deal about the filmmaker’s questionable methodology, rather disappointingly there is no cross-examination of “The Big One” or any of Moore’s early television work, as well as very little of “Fahrenheit 9/11”. For some unknown reason, “Roger and Me” and “Bowling for Columbine” receives the lion’s share of the directors’ attention. Much of Moore’s formative background, particularly his early influences and family upbringing, is also left relatively untouched. Where does he get his rebellious spirit from, and how did a relatively affluent small town boy become a doyenne of liberal America? These are just some of the questions about Moore’s background that sadly go unanswered.
“Manufacturing Dissent” does, however, raise some very interesting questions not only about Moore, the man and his work, but also about the documentary form itself. The film has brought back to the table that age-old debate as to whether all documentaries are essentially and unavoidably subjective, and therefore manipulative by nature. It also asks the viewer to consider whether it is acceptable for a documentarian to employ dubious methods and tactics to achieve a particular goal, and if they do, should their work still be considered a documentary.
“Manufacturing Dissent” is, quite simply, a brave and challenging piece of filmmaking. The more you find out about its subject throughout the film, the more you want to know, and the more you realise that there are still more to know. Beneath Moore’s folksy, down-to-earth and moralistic persona lies what appears to be a complex man ridden with contradictions. His comments on Oscar night, just days after the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, will never sound the same again.
Fictitious times, indeed.
(This is a guest movie review. Click here to find out how to submit your own guest movie review or movie article.)
Rick Caine, Debbie Melnyk (director) / Rick Caine, Debbie Melnyk (screenplay)
CAST: Noam Chomsky, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, Phil Donahue, Roger Ebert, Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo, Ben Hamper, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Bill O’Reilly, John Pierson